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New Hampshire Supreme Court orders Canaan to release police investigation

Dan Tuohy

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that a taxpayer-funded investigative report into the alleged misconduct of a Canaan police officer during a 2017 traffic stop must be made public.

In a 5-0 decision announced Friday morning, the court concluded the public has a “substantial interest in information about what its government is up to, as well as knowing whether a government investigation is comprehensive and accurate.”

Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald wrote the 10-page decision.

The case stems from a Nov. 30, 2017, roadside encounter between then-Canaan officer Samuel Provenza and Crystal Wright, a Canaan resident.

Wright accused Provenza, who is now a New Hampshire state trooper, of assaulting her when she didn’t hand over her driver’s license and registration as quickly as he would have liked. (Wright now uses her married name, but at the time of the incident she went by Crystal Eastman.)

The traffic stop that late fall afternoon ended with Wright, who was in her early 30s at the time, leaving in an ambulance for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. She had suffered a knee injury that later required two surgeries.

Wright accused Provenza of “unnecessarily and violently” striking her leg while yanking her from her SUV.

Provenza denied using excessive force while arresting Wright, who was charged with two misdemeanors. A Lebanon Circuit Court judge acquitted Wright, who had no previous criminal record, of resisting arrest, but found her guilty of disobeying an officer.

Provenza’s cruiser was equipped with a dashboard video camera, but it wasn’t functioning on the day in question.

In 2018, the Canaan Selectboard hired Municipal Resources Inc., of Meredith, to investigate the traffic stop. The investigation, conducted by a retired New Hampshire state trooper, cost Canaan taxpayers more than $6,000.

Under the state’s right-to-know law, Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon asked for the investigator’s report, but Canaan officials twice denied the requests. Canaan officials claimed the report was a personnel matter and needed to remain private.

In 2020, the town also let Provenza know the Valley News was seeking the report. Provenza then filed a lawsuit against the town in Grafton Superior Court to keep the report a secret.

To prevent Provenza and Canaan officials from keeping the report permanently out of the public domain, the Valley News asked to join the lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire took up the case, representing the Valley News at no cost.

In 2020, Grafton Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein ordered Canaan officials to turn over the report. Provenza appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case last October.

Provenza was represented throughout the case by Concord attorney John Krupski, who does legal work for the New Hampshire State Police troopers’ union.

On Friday, the five justices upheld Borstein’s decision. MacDonald wrote “the purpose of the Right-to-Know Law is to ensure both greatest possible access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people.”

Provenza had contended the “trial court erred in its balancing of the public right to access governmental information against his privacy interests,” the court stated.

“We conclude that Provenza’s privacy interest here is not weighty,” the court added.

“To the extent that Provenza argues that the government has an interest in nondisclosure because disclosure will have a chilling effect on future investigations, we agree with the Valley News that Provenza has not carried his burden of demonstrating that disclosure, in light of the of facts of this case, is likely to have any such chilling effect.”

Henry Klementowicz, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of New Hampshire, argued the case for the Valley News.

“Policing in New Hampshire is improved with more accountability, not less — and that’s why today’s court victory for police transparency is so important,” Klementowicz said in a statement. “The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed unanimously that there is ‘significant’ public interest in the disclosure of this report and upheld the ruling that it be made public.

“We join our client, the Valley News, in looking forward to the release of this important information.”

A few hours after the court’s announcement on Friday, Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson told the Valley News that he hadn’t looked at the decision in detail, but it “pretty much affirms what our expectations have been all along.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information 

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